Nino Bonaccorsi makes history for Pitt wrestling, despite poor team performance


(Ian Maule/Tulsa World via AP)

Pittsburgh’s Nino Bonaccorsi reacts after defeating South Dakota State’s Tanner Sloan during the championship round at the NCAA Division I wrestling championships Saturday, March 18, 2023, in Tulsa, Okla.

By Brian Sherry, Assistant Sports Editor

The victory lights shined bright over campus on Saturday night, as redshirt senior Nino Bonaccorsi became Pitt’s first wrestling national champion since 2008.

Bonaccorsi dominated at the NCAA wrestling tournament in Tulsa, Oklahoma, racking up five wins in three days en route to the 197-pound national title. He wrapped up the tournament with a 5-3 victory over senior Tanner Sloan of South Dakota State. Bonaccosi said winning a national title was a lifelong dream.

“This is so surreal,” Bonaccorsi said in an interview with ESPN after the match. “I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I was eight years old, I was watching these guys right out here win. I can’t believe it.”

But winning the title was not easy for Bonaccorsi. The redshirt senior had a rough start to the championship match, as Sloan capitalized on a fierce single-leg takedown at the edge of the mat, earning himself an early 2-0 lead.

Sloan then chose bottom to start the second period. Bonaccorsi tried his best to keep Sloan down, but the South Dakota State wrestler fought to earn the escape and a 3-0 lead. Despite going down early, Bonaccorsi said he continued to fight and stick with his style of wrestling.

“Nothing changes, I kept wrestling my whole match,” Bonaccorsi said about his early deficit. “I knew it was going to be ugly. I had to get there and just wrestle my style and get the victory.”

And sticking with his original game plan paid off for Bonaccorsi. He went in for a low, single-leg shot with a minute to go in the second period, forcing his opponent to balance on one leg. Sloan scrambled back toward the out-of-bounce line, but Bonaccorsi swept his leg out to earn the two-point takedown. 

Bonaccorsi took full control of the match following his second period takedown, despite still trailing 3-2. He finally took the lead with just under a minute left in the third period, as he worked for another single-leg takedown. Bonaccorsi ultimately picked up another point for riding time, walking away with the 5-3 victory.

With his championship victory, Bonaccorsi became Pitt’s first national champion since current head coach — Keith Gavin — captured the crown in 2008. Bonaccorsi and Gavin have developed a strong connection over the past six years, as they both came to Pitt in 2017. Bonaccorsi said winning a national title was something he wanted to do for Gavin. 

“[Gavin] was the last national champ,” Bonaccorsi said in his post-match press conference. “We always talked about getting the next one and you could win at Pitt and I told him I would do it. Me and him work so hard together, we worked every single day. He’s been my best partner. So it’s great to do that for him.”

Bonaccorsi had an opportunity to win a national title for Pitt back in 2021, but he fell 4-2 in the 197-pound final to Oklahoma State first-year AJ Ferrari. 

Despite Bonaccorsi’s strong showing at the tournament, Pitt did not fare well in the team standings. The Panthers earned 27 points and finished No. 22 as a team, despite entering the weekend as the No. 11 ranked tournament team, according to InterMat.

Redshirt senior Cole Matthews was Pitt’s second-highest-seeded wrestler, coming into the tournament ranked No. 3 at 141 pounds. Matthews started the tournament with two hard-fought victories, but fell 3-1 in the quarterfinals to junior Beau Bartlett of Penn State.

Matthews’ quarterfinal loss destroyed his momentum, as he lost his next match 2-1 to redshirt junior Dylan D’Emilio of Ohio State, which eliminated him from the tournament. Despite coming into the tournament seeded No. 3, Matthews failed to reach the top eight on the podium. 

Redshirt senior Micky Phillippi also failed to meet expectations in Tulsa. Phillippi came into the tournament seeded No. 9 at 133 pounds. He won his first match, before redshirt first-year Aaron Nagao of Minnesota pinned him in the second round.

Phillippi rebounded well, winning two straight matches in the consolation bracket. But Phillippi couldn’t keep the momentum going, as he was sent home by Virginia Tech redshirt junior Sam Latona in the fourth round of consolation matches. 

Overall, Pitt sent six wrestlers to Tulsa, with only one reaching the podium.

Penn State ran away with the team title, posting 137.5 points. The Nittany Lions finished with two national champions and eight wrestlers on the podium. Iowa came in a distant second with 82.5 points.